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Jazz legend Lewis likes to keep things fresh

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Pianist Ramsey Lewis has been in a jazz competition all of his long musical career -- with himself.

And if you don't think that's a tough battle, listen to his music.

Lewis, who turned 77 last month, hits the Burton Cummings Theatre Stage on June 22 with "my new electric band," he says in an interview from Chicago, his birthplace and lifelong home.

His quintet show at the TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival will live up to his credo to "stay as fresh as you can" with a concert featuring music from his latest CD, Ramsey, Taking Another Look, music he has written for a new CD that is part of a video presentation, music from his 1974 masterpiece Sun Goddess and his big crossover hits The In Crowd and Wade in the Water. "People expect those," Lewis says.

That repertoire "will give the audience an idea of what we can do," he adds, and will feature everyone in the band of guitarist Henry Johnson, bassist Joshua Ramos, drummer Charles Heath and Tim Gant, who Lewis says "plays three or four keyboards."

Lewis, whose musical output over the years has moved between acoustic to electric will play a Steinway and Fender Rhodes electric piano. "I'll never turn away from Steinway," the pianist says.

The pianist is part of the festival's theatre series, which opens tonight and runs to June 23.

Lewis doesn't worry about new generations of musicians nipping at his heels. "I encourage new musicians, I try to help them," Lewis says. "The idea is not to compete with anyone but yourself. You don't want to repeat yourself. Don't repackage it, move ahead with new ideas."

For example, pianist Vijay Iyer, about half Lewis's age, performs at the festival the day after him.

"I strive for balance" between a legend like Lewis and a newer pianist like Iyer, says festival executive producer Paul Nolin.

Nolin says he likes to book a legend like Lewis for the traditionalist fans, although Lewis's new electric band isn't bound by tradition.

Lewis began performing in a jazz band at 15 and led a trio that signed with Chess Records in 1956. That band's career really took off in 1965, when it recorded a swinging version of The In Crowd that earned Lewis his first gold record and a Grammy award for Best Jazz Performance.

He has had a successful career in contemporary jazz, but has not forsaken traditional jazz sounds.

This tour is the first time Lewis has played with this band configuration. He has played in a trio with bassist Ramos and drummer Heath, he said, and with Johnson in another band.

He will be touring all summer, he says, and plays all year round but while "I did 60 to 70 concerts a year while younger, I do 35 to 40 a year now. I take some time to smell the roses."

Those roses are located in Chicago, "a big city with a heart," as the three-time Grammy winner and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Award recipient describes it.

New York City, with its clubs and history, still draws jazz musicians from around the world. "I still love to perform in New York and play tourist," Lewis says, but "Chicago gave me my beginning and allowed me to become an international name."

The TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival runs until June 23 at various venues with mainstage acts Delfeayo Marsalis Sextet (tonight); The Hold Steady, Shine On: The Universe of John Lennon (June 19); Janelle Monáe, Gretchen Parlato, June 20; Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, June 21; and Booker T. Jones, June 23. Club shows take place at seven locations, featuring 40 acts. Free concerts run at noon in Old Market Square today through Friday.

Ticket information and schedule are available at jazzwinnipeg.com.

chris.smith@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2012 D3

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